A Thing or Two about a Thing or Two, a.k.a. Science

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Rationalists tend to frown upon group activities that seem to serve no evident biological or political purpose, like the drumming and masking so often indulged in by protest movements like Occupy Wall Street. Or, for a more historically venerable example, consider the reaction of European conquerors and missionaries to the shocking spectacles they encountered during the “age of exploration.” Almost everywhere they went—from Africa to the Western plains of America, from Polynesia to the Indian subcontinent—Europeans came across native peoples engaged in ecstatic rituals involving dancing, drumming, body-painting, masks, costumes, and feasting. Failing to notice the parallels between these exuberant native rituals and the traditional carnivals of Europe, missionaries tended to explain them as outbreaks of demonic possession, or as proof that the natives were not human at all, only “savages.”

Later, twentieth-century anthropologists bewailed the apparent waste of energy and resources represented by these ubiquitous practices, and not just the excesses of calorically profligate dances. Painstaking preparation went into the design of costumes and masks, the invention of new tunes and dance steps, the production of favorite foods—all representing sunk opportunity costs, in this zero-sum view: energies that might have been more rationally expended on hunting, gathering, or horticulture. There had to be some purpose, or at least some function, for these costly and economically nonproductive rituals, and anthropologists soon hit on the notion that they were required for “social cohesion.” Obviously, doing something together, something that was fun and sometimes ecstatic to the point of trance, deepens the ties among individuals, perhaps facilitating productive collective enterprises, such as agriculture or defense. This was fine, from the anthropological point of view, as long as the festivities remained “liminal,” as in Victor Turner’s judgment, or peripheral to a society’s more serious undertakings.

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